“Freedom.” “Jesus.” “America.” And whoever you are, you are “the backbone of this country.” This attempted political satire feels as empty as the platitudes spouted by the candidates in this R-rated comedy that, like the political system it portrays, goes for the easy and expedient and the trashy instead of the substantive or constructive. Bill Maher, “The Daily Show,” and “The Colbert Report” have raised the bar on political comedy, so we expect more bite than this lackluster film, as generic as its title.
Will Ferrell plays four-term Congressman Cam Brady, a Democrat from North Carolina, expecting to run unopposed in the upcoming election. But he all of a sudden becomes vulnerable when leaves a raunchy voicemail for his mistress on the wrong answering machine. The mega-wealthy Motch brothers (played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd and inspired by the real-life Koch brothers, who fund many right-wing causes and politicians) decide they would be better off with another candidate. So, even though he is “weird” and has no experience in politics, they pick Marty Huggins (co-producer Zach Galifianakis). He is the son of a wealthy man (Brian Cox) who has strong connections to business and government. The Motches send in Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), their best political operative to run the campaign, and he crisply cuts right to the point: “I’m here to make you suck less.”
Immediately, Marty’s life is turned upside down as his beloved pug dogs are replaced with a golden retriever and a black lab — both in bandanas — because those breeds have the highest approval ratings. He and his wife and their home get extreme makeovers and Tim keeps Marty on talking points. Meanwhile, Cam’s overconfidence and poor judgment help Marty rise in the polls. The Motches have been using a loophole to sell goods produced in China labeled as “made in America” (based on convicted felon Jack Abramoff’s deal in the Mariana Islands). They plot to create an enterprise zone in the district, waiving environmental, safety, and wage regulations so they can create American sweatshops with imported Chinese workers (“insourcing”). They just need a Congressman who will do what they tell him. And their control goes even deeper than money.
It is briefly intriguing to see Dan Aykroyd taking over the kind of “Trading Places” rich bad guy brother role Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy played when he and Eddie Murphy were the leads, but the contrast just shows how little energy and bite this film in comparison. McDermott picks things up with some dark wit and Katherine LaNasa is a highlight as Cam’s steel magnolia of a wife. But Ferrell is deprived of his greatest asset as a performer. He is at his best when he plays flawed men who are immature and self-centered but still likable because they really want to be liked and struggle to do the right thing. Cam just does not care. And Galifiniakis’ mincing affect and Southern drawl are not as witty as he intends them to be. This is one of those campaigns when you wish the ballot had an option for “none of the above.”
Parents should know that this movie includes extremely crude humor with very explicit sexual references and situations and very strong and vulgar language, brief female nudity, drinking, drunkenness and drunk driving, smoking, comic peril and violence including snake bite and shooting injury, a lot of corruption and overall bad behavior played for comedy.
Family discussion: What elements of the story seemed most true about our current political system? What is the impact of “Citizens United” on elections?
If you like this, try: “In the Loop” and documentaries like “The War Room” and “Unprecedented”